By Andrew Hassett
Global Campaigns Director, World Vision International
Hain remembers being told to kill or be killed. He was forced into an armed group in Myanmar when he was just 16.
"I shot just over 100 people. There were some people who were the same age as me there. Some even looked younger,” he said. “Whenever I think about those moments, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat and sometimes I don’t even know how to live."
Ngalula is a 12-year-old with a big smile and a heartbreaking story. One day, in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of her friends asked her to take a walk with her. “I didn’t know where we were going. We got to the forest where the militia had their camp, and as we got there I told her, ‘I don’t want to join the movement; my parents don’t want me to join’. But she told me ‘if you don’t join we will kill you,’ and I was scared so I told her that instead of killing me I would join the militia.”
Today (February 12) is Red Hand Day, a day for us all to come together to say no child should fight in wars started and fuelled by adults. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of children involved in armed conflicts, illegally, around the world.
On paper, governments and leaders have said this won’t happen, In theory, they condemn the use of children in fighting, and pledge to do more to end a practice that steals futures and subjects children to horrors no one, let alone a child, should experience or witness. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict is one such example of these promises. In reality, however, children are easy targets, they are vulnerable and prone to being lured by simple, dishonest promises, when life around them seems to offer no alternative. In reality, even our government doesn’t outlaw the involvement of children in armed forces.
This has to stop. It’s 2018, and it’s time for governments to put in place practical steps to see an end to the forced recruitment of child soldiers. This can be done by:
1. Setting 18 as the minimum age for both recruitment and participation. In many countries, the armed forces minimum age is 16; it should be 18.
2. Recognising and supporting the role of children in building peace.
3. Providing economic and social protection that reduce risk of recruitment, such as improved access to good quality education for children at risk, so the promise of an education isn’t enough of a reason for a child to join an armed group. Children like 15-year-old David in DRC, believe this promise until it’s too late: “They never stopped saying, ‘Fight, and if we win, you can study for free’. This never happened. When I see my friends going to school, I feel betrayed; we were cheated.”
4. Ensuring a protective environment for children that strengthens the formal system and community-based informal protection networks and builds children’s resilience to recruitment
5. Working with faith and community leaders to end practices that encourage children’s participation in conflict.
6. Implementing universal birth registration, so invisible and vulnerable children cannot easily be taken without a trace.
7. Controlling the flow of small arms. The easy accessibility of small arms contributes to the recruitment of children; they’re low cost, children can be trained on them in about 30 minutes, and they are light enough for even small children to handle.
8. Investing more in the prevention and peaceful resolution of armed conflict so that children don’t face this threat in the first place.
We know it takes more than governments to end the use of child soldiers. That’s why we’re taking action too.
World Vision runs helplines for child soldiers who want to escape, or have escaped, armed groups. We help former child soldiers like Hain to start new lives and reintegrate into their families and communities. Together with partners we help children like David get back into school, and set up Child Friendly Spaces, where displaced, demobilised, and other children affected by conflict can play and process their experiences. We work with children formerly involved in the conflict in South Sudan, to help them recover from the violence they have witnessed or experienced, and peacefully rejoin society. We provide assistance to find and return children to their families and ensure safe, supervised care.
We work with partners, including governments, to provide viable alternatives to children at risk of joining armed forces or armed groups, such as targeted livelihoods and education programmes and youth peacebuilding activities.
In 2015, total ODA spending was $174 billion and of that, less than 0.6 per cent was allocated to ending violence against children. So you can only imagine how little goes to ending the use of child soldiers. It’s time to do more, so children like Hain and Ngalula can face a brighter future.